Today (March 16) marks the 30th anniversary of Michael Stone’s murderous gun and grenade attack on mourners at an IRA funeral in Belfast’s Milltown cemetery.
As television crews that had assembled for the triple burial continued to film on March 16, 1988, the lone loyalist brandished two pistols with deadly effect, killing three people and wounding many more.
In a bizarre twist to one of the most notorious incident of the Troubles, the two guns were recovered by the republicans who chased him down and then used with equally deadly effect by Stone’s sworn enemies.
The three men who died at Milltown were Thomas McErlean, John Murray and IRA member Kevin Brady, who were all said to have been involved in the pursuit of Stone towards the M1 motorway.
The loyalist attack – carried out as the IRA buried three members killed by the SAS in Gibraltar 10 days earlier – outraged republicans like no other.
Still seething from the Milltown onslaught, mourners at the subsequent funeral of Kevin Brady viciously attacked two Army corporals who had strayed into the path of the cortege.
A high-powered Browning 9mm pistol taken from Corporal Derek Woods before both men were shot dead, like the weapons taken from Stone, became prized IRA possessions.
Five months after the Milltown attack, the Browning brandished by Stone was used to murder UDR lance-corporal Roy Butler in front of his wife while shopping at Belfast’s Park Centre.
It was also the weapon that killed police dog handler Constable Samuel Todd at the city’s High Street security gates in September 1990.
In September 1988, one month after the Butler murder, IRA killers used the Ruger revolver taken from a badly-beaten Stone to shoot an Ulster Clubs member at Finaghy.
Colin Abernethy was shot by one of two IRA men who boarded a train travelling between Lisburn and Belfast.
The killers, said to have been dressed as postmen, shot the 29-year-old as the train stopped a Finaghy before making off on foot.
The Browning pistol taken from Corporal Woods was fired at customers in a Belfast ice cream parlour during the murder of off-duty RUC officer John Larmour in October 1988.
Despite speculation that the police-issue Ruger that fired the fatal shots at Constable Larmour was the one taken from Stone, his son Gavin – who has extensively researched the history of the weapons involved – does not believe this to be the case.
However, the Browning pistol used to seriously injure the two customers was later used in murders in both Northern Ireland and continental Europe.
Perhaps most notably, it was one of two weapons used when the IRA shot dead two Australian tourists in Roermond, Holland in 1990, having mistaken the holidaying lawyers for British troops.
Corporal Wood’s pistol and the Ruger used by Stone were finally recovered when Belgian police arrested four suspected IRA terrorists near the Dutch border in the weeks following the Roermond murders.
• During many years of painstaking research, the son of a murdered police officer has become an expert on the history of the weapons taken from both Michael Stone and the two corporals by the IRA.
Gavin Larmour’s father John was shot dead by a Ruger revolver of the kind used by Stone at Milltown, while two shop customers targeted during the same attack were wounded with the Browning pistol taken from Corporal Derek Woods.
Despite continuing speculation, Mr Larmour has ruled out the possibility that the Ruger brandished by Stone was used in his father’s murder.
He said: “Cross-referencing and linking guns with other murders led people to conclude the Ruger was the one taken from Michael Stone but I don’t think it is.”
Mr Larmour added: “Between 1979 and 1986 police issued 7,346 Ruger revolvers. Forty Rugers were reported lost or stolen, and 13 of those haven’t been recovered.”